Chrístõ woke groggily and looked up at a canvas roof above the camp bed where he was lying. A very tanned white man leaned over and held a leather water pouch to his lips while a native who was dark-skinned by birth hovered nearby.

He allowed himself a smile. His plan to become a part of the Brandon-Smythe expedition was working so far.

It had been a little risky jumping out of the TARDIS in a basket attached to a thoroughly shredded balloon. It was only about fifty feet, but he could have hurt himself.

As it was, the expedition stumbled upon him as planned. He had been brought into a tent and given first aid. Ralph Brandon-Smythe himself was tending to his needs.

"My balloon," he whispered plaintively.

"Wrecked, I'm afraid," the double-barrelled explorer and adventurer told him. "I had two of the native chappies bring it along to the camp, but you won't get it up again."

Chrístõ murmured a vaguely rude swear word with a hint of frustration.

"Some sort of attempt to cross the desert solo, was it?"

"Something like that."

"Too bad. We need more Englishmen doing that sort of thing. The French and Germans and even the bally Americans will have all the glory if we don't put in the effort."

"Yes, indeed, " Chrístõ agreed. He introduced himself as Chrístõpher Lyons of Berkshire, a physician by profession and adventurer by inclination.

He knew that the expedition was short of a medic al man after that member of the original party came down with dysentery in Port Said before they had even begun to cross the desert. The next bit of conversation was inevitable. Chrístõ found himself invited to join the Brandon-Smythe expedition as physician and fellow adventurer.

Mission accomplished - so far.

"We're camped up for the night, " Brandon-Smythe explained. "If you feel up to joining us for supper it'll be a chance to meet the other chaps. "

"I would be delighted," Chrístõ assured him.

The campfire in the desert with the sun rapidly setting and the temperature dropping even faster was a pleasant and surprisingly nostalgic time for Chrístõ. He found himself recalling many occasions when he had dined in such a style. There were the summers of his senior years at the Prydonian Academy, when he had joined the scouts and taken part in outward bound exercises in the Red Desert with some of his fellow Prydonians. He recalled a recent scathing remark about the scout uniform and heartily agreed with it, but the experience of battling against hostile wilderness was definitely character building.

Even more fondly he remembered more intimate camp fires with his father. His years at the Academy and his father's offworld work had threatened to be a wedge between them, but these trips had done much to reverse that trend, bringing them closer than ever.

He knew he wasn't going to become fond of these campfire companions. History had already dictated that he wouldn't know them for very long. All the same, he paid them all close attention.

The chef in charge of the repast of goat stew and barley bread was a man so thin it might be thought that he never ate any of his own cooking, surviving, perhaps on the aroma from the pot. He was Rhys Griffiths, a Welshman who was, as well as a chef, a very able archaeologist who had gone to Egypt with one of the later Flinders Petrie expeditions before making something of a name for himself with his own discoveries in the Lower Nile Delta.

A shorter, plumper and much younger man had his horn-rimmed glasses pushed up onto his forehead as he polished the lenses of an impressive camera. He was Riley Davenport, another man with two surnames. His fame, not surprisingly, was in producing very impressive photographic studies and he was here to make a visual record of the expedition.

A thin man with what had to be an extraordinary metabolism since he ate two full bowls of goat stew in the time it took everyone else to eat one was Andrew Peterson, whose special skill was as a speleologist. When he had finished eating he set his bowl aside and gave his attention to a series of hand drawn plans of a subterranean system.

Chrístõ looked at them all carefully. He knew their names and faces from books and websites about the Brandon-Smythe expedition, but the photographs were all black and white. Seeing them all in living colour made the adventure much more real.

There were two other white men in the party. Brandon-Smythe had a batman who saw to his needs, a very upright character with handlebar moustaches and the bearing of a sergeant major. He was introduced to Chrístõ as Jolly, this being his surname.

Griffith had a personal secretary along with him - a quiet Irishman called O'Neill.

The several dozen bearers and camel drivers sitting around their own campfires were indistinguishable in their identical plain white shalwar kameez and kefir headdresses. They must all have names, but the white men didn’t have any reason to know them. When they needed to speak to one of them they just called out 'bearer' or 'driver'.

They were already eight days into their expedition, insofar as it could be said to have begun on a fresh morning in Port Said. Of course, the project really began months ago when Brandon-Smythe got the financial backing and put together the team. They set off on a steamer from Southampton that took twelve days to reach Egypt. They had a few days in one of the better hotels of the bustling city while the native servants were engaged, horses and camels and food stocks paid for and the whole lot transported by train for the first fifty miles inland, roughly following the east bank of the Suez Canal.

Finally the real adventure began when the mixed complement of camels and horses, the former for carrying the luggage and servants, the latter carrying the gentlemen of the expedition, set off into the Sinai desert.

It was mainly of those eight days of desert travel that the chaps talked, thus bringing their new companion fully into the fold. They had mostly been uneventful except for one sandstorm that had them seeking the shelter of a rare rock outcrop. Griffiths had spent most of the storm examining antique carvings on the rock and rueing the fact that the light was too bad for the young photographer to get any decent pictures of them.

"I thought I was ready for the heat and the sand," Riley Davenport said about his desert experience. "But it only took half a morning to realise I had no idea."

"That part of the Sinai that we were crossing for the first three days was all dry sand and dry, hot wind," Peterson explained. "The horses hooves sank in deep at every step. The camels are adapted to the sand. Their toes splay and spread the weight, but the horses just have to lift their feet out of the sand again and again. It was tiring for us and them."

"I really started to understand why the natives have that all encompassing headdress," Davenport added. "I thought it was something to do with hiding their faces from us - from the devilish white man, all that sort of thing. But it turns out it really is the best way to keep sand out of everything. When I took my headdress off the first night, simply pounds of sand fell out of it."

Chrístõ smiled like a seasoned desert traveller. He had known the benefits of what north Africans and Arabs called a kefir long before he came to Earth. The sand of the Red Desert had the same properties as the northern Sinai - dry heat, dry sand, dry, hot wind. He had never had to wear a kefir in the Red Desert. Gallifreyan technology provided for lightweight heat-repelling, light-polarising helmets.

Funnily enough, Chrístõ liked the kefir better. His reasons, admittedly, had a lot to do with vanity - a sort of Lawrence of Arabia style romantic notion about his own image. The Gallifreyan sand helmet looked like a design rejected by a militant tooth fairy in comparison. Apart from anything else, Julia liked the Lawrence of Arabia look better. Of course, as a Prydonian of honour, vanity was not an admirable trait, but he told himself it was not the worst vice he might have.

Davenport was being teased by the other men for being so naive about desert travel. The young man looked uncomfortable about his sending up, but it was something he just had to learn to deal with. Chrístõ knew from experience that being too sensitive about such things only made the situation worse.

Even so, as soon as he could, he found an opportunity to steer the conversation away from Riley Davenport's maiden voyage into the desert and onto the purpose of the expedition.

"You heard nothing about it before starting your own adventure? " Griffiths asked.

"Nothing, " Chrístõ answered. "but I have been a little out of touch for a few years, managing my father's estate in Galway. "

Peterson rolled his eyes, and Griffith murmured something about cans of worms. Chrístõ wondered for a brief moment what that meant.

Then Jolly launched into what seemed to be a familiar topic among the group. The military man who had spent some time at the sharp end of the Irish Question had some ideas about how the 'Paddies' ought to have been dealt with seemed severe even for the upper class Englishmen of the expedition. The quiet, unassuming O'Neill turned into a political firebrand at mention of the subject.

Chrístõ regretted using his usual cover story of an estate in Galway - chosen only because of the loose linguistic similarity between the Irish county and Gallifrey. It was clearly a catalyst for the two men to rake over some very not so very old coals.

"Note to self," he thought. "The Nineteen-Twenties are a bad decade for claiming Irish connections."

Brandon-Smythe put a stop to the argument by pointing out that it was not at all appropriate for white men to argue in front of the natives. Jolly had one parting shot, congratulating Chrístõ's father for keeping hold of the estate despite the machinations of the Fenians.

O'Neill might have been one of those Fenians, but he held his peace after a sharp rebuke from Griffiths.

"If you were away in the back of beyond, you won't have heard the gossip about the expedition going after King Solomon's gold mines," Brandon-Smythe said, bringing the subject back around to Chrístõ's original query. "The London Illustrated News had a whole feature on the expedition, and the Mail was scathing about what it called a 'fool's errand'."

"And is that the real purpose of the adventure?" Chrístõ asked, knowing that the works of Sir H Rider Haggard had made that quest for the source of the biblical king's fortune a difficult one to mount without publicity, controversy and a certain amount of derision.

"It is," Brandon-Smythe answered. "But this is no wild goose chase. We have documents of proven provenance which point to the location of the mines as Khirbat en-Nahas in Transjordan."

Chrístõ nodded. A century later, with the advantage of laser technology that could map what lay beneath the sands without even picking up a spade, the site could be established without doubt as one of the ancient Israelite king's treasure houses. Brandon-Smythe's source was ahead of its time.

"It’s not gold or diamonds I want to find," Peterson added. "I hope that the Ring of Solomon might be at this site."

That was another matter entirely. it was the very reason why this expedition was among the presets in his TARDIS database.

The Ring of Solomon wasn't just an off-colour joke. It was, in human myth, the source of the king's wisdom. In three different versions of the story, the ring gave the power to talk with either angels, demons or animals.

In Gallifreyan mythology it was one of several artefacts scattered across the universe that might be the long lost Ring of Rassilon. There weren't any jokes about that, of any colour. Time Lords didn't have that sort of humour.

Recovering a precious relic of the creator of the Time Lord race was a good reason for joining the expedition, but there was something else that appealed to Chrístõ's sense of adventure and intrigue.

Finding out just what happened to the Brandon-Smythe expedition at Khirbat en-Nahas.

The camp fire gathering broke up before midnight. everyone went to their tents. Chrístõ wondered which of the anonymous native servants had erected a tent for him with a camp bed beneath a mosquito net and laid out the contents of the knapsack he had jumped out of the TARDIS with. He doubted he would ever know.

He quickly undressed and laid down under the net but above the slightly scratchy linen. It was cold outside the tent in the desert night, but he was comfortable enough. If he felt the chill he could easily regulate his own body temperature anyway.

Lyons!" The loud whisper at the tent flap was repeated twice before Chrístõ remembered that was his own name.

"Yes, I'm awake, still," he called back and pulled aside the mosquito net as Rhys Griffith came into the tent.

"I just wanted to be sure that O'Neill didn't offend you, earlier," the Welsh archaeologist said to him. "He's a hothead. He fought against the British in the War of Independence. Mostly he fought men like Jolly who rejoined the army after most had seen their fill of war in order to 'bash the paddies.' Then he fought against his own people when the Treaty split them. If the civil war had gone on much longer he would either have been killed in action or executed by the Free Staters."

Chrístõ smiled wryly and re-evaluated his first impression of O'Neill as a quiet Irishman.

Griffiths read his expression accurately.

"He IS a good man if you can keep him off politics "

"I'll try to keep the peace," Chrístõ promised. "O'Neill is your friend, then?"

"We were at school together. He was a scholarship boy, looked down on by most of the sons of aristocrats, but we were friends."

Chrístõ nodded. He understood all the subtle ways underdogs were made in school dormitories. Griffith was one of those rare people who had risked the censure of the popular set to befriend one of them.

"We lost touch after school, and with the state of things in Ireland I had no idea if he was alive or dead until last year when we met by chance in London and he swallowed his pride enough to ask for a job. He knows nothing about archaeology but he's a good secretary and if we come across any trouble he knows how to handle a gun and isn't afraid to use it - even against a man."

"Just so long as that man isn't Jolly."

Griffith laughed.

"I'm Welsh. The likes of Brandon-Smythe think that's just an Englishman with a funny accent, but I can't help a little Celtic solidarity when it comes down to it. Perhaps that's another reason I gave him a job. I thought he deserved a break. I didn't know about the bloody Black and Tan coming with us until it was too late. Anyway, I just wanted you to understand the situation. We should rest now. We ride at first light. Goodnight, Lyons."

"Goodnight," Chrístõ answered. As he settled down to sleep, Chrístõ wondered if the accidental inclusion of an IRA man, a Welsh sympathiser and a Scottish mercenary into the party was the simple reason for their downfall? Were old scores settled in the desert before they even reached Khirbat en-Nahas.

No, he told himself. As complicated as Irish affairs were in this time he felt it had to be more than that.

They breakfasted with Homer's 'rosy fingr'd' dawn spreading across the eastern horizon and stars still bright in the deep navy blue sky above the camp. As he ate his share of barley bread spread with olive oil and slices of cold roasted goat, Chrístõ orientated himself by the stars and found the constellation of Sagittarius low down on the southern sky.

Chrístõ smiled and blessed his planet as he always did, more warmly from afar than when he stood upon its soil

The camp was struck by the native servants while the men of the Brandon-Smythe expedition ate and they were ready to move out before dawn had fully broken. They followed a course roughly south east across what was now the Negev desert. Here the ground was more rugged and the sand was not blown around so much, but the dry heat was still as unforgiving to white men who were unaccustomed to such a climate. Riley Davenport struggled to keep pace with his companions. He was clearly less experienced a horseman than any of the others.

But again it was something he needed to work out for himself. It would do no good to try to help him and make him seem pathetic in the eyes of his fellow travellers.

As he was watching the young man negotiate a particularly rocky and difficult piece of terrain Brandon-Smythe rode close to Chrístõ and engaged him in conversation.

"You ride well," he said. "And I noticed you reading our position by the stars before sun up. All the signs of a seasoned traveller. And yet your face is so pale you look as if you've never left the university library."

Chrístõ thought that was a little impertinent, but the man was just doing to him what he was doing to them all, sounding out the mystery beneath the surface.

"I'm just naturally pale," Chrístõ answered. "I think there's a bit of Scandinavian in my blood. I never tan, even in the desert. As for riding... I have done so since childhood, but usually with a sunhat fastened onto my head. "

He allowed himself a fond thought of riding sturdy mustangs on Ventura, a planet where, despite all technological advances the horse, was the preferred means of transport and a revered animal. His father had taught him - which was the first, best reason for enjoying the experience and remembering it so fondly.

"You're a proper Englishman, anyway," Brandon-Smythe remarked. "The sort we need on expeditions of this nature. Men who were bred to be honourable from the day they were weaned."

"Surely Griffiths is an honourable man," Chrístõ suggested. "I talked to him last night, and he seemed to be so."

"The Welsh... are all right as far as it goes. But the country is so damned damp. It addles their brains and weakens the bones. If my life was at stake, I'd rather an Englishman at my side. Even before Jolly with his Celtic sensibilities."

Chrístõ nodded. He knew Brandon-Smythe. He had known him all his life. He was known as Lord Ravenswode or Drogban or Charr, then, but he knew him well. he believed in the accidental nature of birthplace or social position as a measure of a man's worth.

He didn't hate his sort. They were as trapped in the narrow confines of their birth status as the lowest caste of servant. They could no more change their minds than a leonate could change its fur. It couldn't even be classed as prejudice when they had no idea that what they said was a judgement on others. They thought it was fact that the universe was ordered in such a way with themselves at the top and others below.

Yes, he knew Brandon-Smythe. He needed no more analysis than that.

After a few minutes more of pointless conversation the leader of the expedition rode forward to shout at one of the camel drivers for some reason known only to himself.

Peterson drew level with him instead.

"This desert riding really doesn't suit me," the speleologist said as an opening onto a conversation. "Too much sky. I'm happiest underground, in cave systems and caverns. "

"I think you'll have your chance to shine at Khirbat en-Nahas, then," Chrístõ told him. "We are going to find caves, mines, something of that sort there, I suppose?"

"Oh yes," Peterson answered enthusiastically. "The map Brandon-Smythe acquired is amazing. There are so many levels tunnels and passages, gallery after gallery, each deeper than the next. It is going to be amazing even if there isn't any treasure, or the Ring."

"You believe in the ring, then?

"Yes, I do."

"You want to talk with angels? "

Peterson laughed softly.

"Maybe not. Nor demons, either. But to find a relic of one of God's chosen men of wisdom, to the world... to human understanding, would help restore my belief in His wisdom... especially His wisdom in letting me continue to exist on this planet... to continue living my life while others are dust."

Chrístõ hesitated before responding to that curiously passionate remark.

"You are wondering why I have so little self worth," Peterson said as the pause lengthened.

"No," Chrístõ lied, though not too convincingly.

"Your face is strangely hard to read. Were you old enough to fight in the Great War?" Peterson asked.

"Yes," Chrístõ answered, though in his mind he justified the lie by recalling the war he fought for the freedom of Gallifrey, a memory as fresh as the 1914-1918 war must be to Humans of Peterson's generation.

"Then you know... what it was like... in the trenches... the bullets whistling through the air, hitting one man in the head... instant death... another in the jugular so that he died in agony... another by his side completely unscathed. "

"Yes, I know. "

"Did you ever wonder why you lived and so many others died?"

"Sometimes, yes."

"I do, all the time, because I can't believe there was any reason why I lived. I wasn't a better soldier, a better man, than those who died."

"I suppose... most men ... think that there is some divine intervention," Chrístõ suggested. "Otherwise, it is simply random luck."

"I don't think I can believe in divine intervention after what I saw," Peterson said. "Or if I do, I question why I was chosen. I question God's wisdom. That's why I feel that finding His gift to Solomon might help restore my faith."

"I hope it does that much for you," Chrístõ told him. "I thought it was just a ring. You have set so much upon it. I hope you are not disappointed."

"I must have faith in that much at least," Peterson admitted with something like resignation. "Thank you for listening to me. It is so hard to talk to the others about these things."

"They must all have been in the war one way or another," Chrístõ pointed out. "Well, apart from O'Neill who seems to have been in a different war to everyone else. But I think even he would understand more than you think. Give them a chance."

Peterson was surprised by that suggestion, but not completely horrified by it. He thanked Chrístõ for the advice and the conversation turned to less solemn topics before fading away altogether.

Chrístõ chatted idly while thinking about what he had learnt from Peterson's heartfelt revelations. It would be decades before the mental scars of battle would be called PTSD and some attempt made to realise how long they took to heal. in the meantime, men like Peterson carried those scars raw and not fully healed.

Sometimes they re-opened catastrophically.

Could that be a reason why the Brandon-Smythe expedition met with disaster?

He hoped not.

The day's ride was uneventful at least. They made camp by an oasis where tired, dusty and aching bodies could swim neck deep. Before the sun set and the temperature dropped too far all of the party enjoyed that luxury. Around the campfire their clean bodies warmed up again and they ate roast goat in good spirits. They talked about reaching their destination the next day and beginning the excavation of an exciting archaeological site until Davenport's pocket watch told them it was midnight and they all retired to their tents.

Chrístõ woke after only a very short sleep aware that there was somebody in his tent. He felt rather than saw the lithe figure creeping towards his camp bed. He was ready to defend himself from a native who wanted to rob him or any such scenario.

He wasn't ready for a hand gently reaching out to caress his cheek or the kiss that quickly followed.

The hopeful young man had taken a measure of brandy for courage. He tasted it on the lips that pressed against his in the moment before he reached out gently but firmly to push his erstwhile admirer away.

"No, don't run," he told called out as the still shadowy figure made to bolt. He grasped a wrist and gently but firmly made him sit. "It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you. It was a bad move, a mistake... but I'm not going to punish you for it."

"I'm sorry, "Riley Davenport murmured shakily. "I... just felt.... You are so.... perfect. I wanted to...."

"Perfect?" Chrístõ smiled wryly. "My fiancée calls me some interesting things, but never that. She would probably refuse to say it in case I get big-headed."

"You have a fiancée?"


"So do I," Riley admitted. "But I'm not sure.... Sometimes I get these feelings... like tonight. "

"You have to learn to keep feelings like that under control," Chrístõ told him. "A lot of men would be angry. You could get hurt."

"I know... I...."

Riley burst into tears, calling himself a fool and many other things. Chrístõ said nothing. There wasn't much to be said. This was the nineteen-twenties. A man with those sort of inclinations had no choice but to marry the fiancée for appearances and suppress his true nature.

Riley knew that. He didn't expect any other advice and didn't ask for it.

"The hardest part is not being able to tell anyone," he admitted as the tears subsided into slow, deep breaths.

"You told me, and you can trust me with your secret. If you need to talk, I am here, any time for that, just not anything Julia would be upset over."

There was plenty Riley wanted to talk about. A lot of it was about prep-school crushes and the handsome man he roomed with at Cambridge.

Unrequited love was Riley's story in a nutshell.

"I'm sorry," Chrístõ told him. "It can't be easy to live that way. But I doubt if you really want or need my pity."

"You understood. that's more than I dared hope. thank you, for that."

Riley reached out and shook Chrístõ's hand manfully, then left the tent. Chrístõ lay awake for a long time thinking about one more surprising fact about the Brandon-Smythe expedition.

He also thought about his own feelings about them. This was, above all, an exercise in emotional detachment. He was there to observe, to find out why no member of the expedition returned from Khirbat en-Nasah.

He wasn't supposed to CARE about any of them.

But he did care. He cared a great deal about Riley Davenport who would never get a chance to kiss somebody who wouldn’t push him away. He cared about the shell-shocked Peterson who would never find the peace of mind he sought.

He liked Rhys Griffith the Welshman with anarchist leanings. He had respect for the quiet but rebellious O'Neill. He even understood what made men like the bigoted Brandon-Smythe or the bullish and equally bigoted Jolly.

And he didn't want to have to stand by and watch any of them die. Not now that he knew their names and what they hoped for the future beyond this doomed expedition.

Before he slept that night he cried almost as much as Riley Davenport had cried out of frustration and impotence to change the destiny of people he had cone to call friends.